One of the dividing lines between generations, particularly for those who have lived in or regularly visited New York City, is whether you remember Times Square before it got Disneyfied. I speak not of the specific intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, of course, but of the surrounding neighborhood, which was a thriving entertainment district long before The Lion King, to say nothing of the Hershey’s store and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, took up residence. It didn’t used to be so squeaky-clean, that’s for sure: as recently as the 1980s, Times Square was a dark and dirty place, oozing of danger, where peep shows and first-run movie houses coexisted and a variety of illegal substances and activities were readily available.
Another dividing line between generations is whether you remember the days when, outside of the potluck and frequently mangled versions played on television, the only way to see a movie was in the theatre. There’s considerable overlap between these two generational definitions, of course, and they are also tied together by the fact that, before home viewing options became widely available, cinephiles would make pilgrimages to an unDisneyfied New York City to take advantage of the many revival and specialty houses showing movies that were simply not available in most of the country.
Nicolas Nicolau, the title subject of Abel Ferrara’s documentary The Projectionist, has a foot in both worlds. He came to America from Cyprus as a young boy, and as a teenager found work in movie theatres. In the 1970s, Manhattan was bursting with independent movie houses showing everything from European and Japanese art films to hardcore porn, and he had no trouble finding work. In the 1980s, Nicolau became a theater owner, and persisted in that trade even as the tastes of the viewing public shifted more and more toward the convenience of viewing movies on demand and at home. Today, he still owns and operates three movie theatres—Cinema Village in Manhattan, Alpine Cinemas in Brooklyn, and Cinemart in Queens—and each of them is well-known among cinephiles for offering a different experience than is on offer at your typical suburban multiplex.
The Projectionist is made up of two types of material, which are bound together, sometimes rather tenuously, by the presence of Nicolau. The first is made up of autographical ruminations, accompanied by footage shot in Cyprus and in New York (often with Ferrara making his way into the frame, for no compelling reason). The second is a celebration of 1970s and 1980s movie culture, made up of stills of old movie houses, clips from feature films like Taxi Driver in which movies play a key role, and a surprising number of clips from XXX films. Above all, The Projectionist speaks to those who harbor a nostalgia for the experience of communal movie viewing, no matter what was being shown, and want to spend some time remembering those good old days.
Movie critics have generally loved The Projectionist, which is no more surprising than the fact that Oscar voters generally love films about Hollywood (a case in point this year is Mank). Like other people, critics like stories about people like themselves, and locales and activities that are meaningful to them. Critics tend to be cinephiles, and as a group are older, whiter, and more likely to be based in cities than the general public. As such, they may look back fondly on their experiences of discovering the wide world of cinema, courtesy of revival and specialty houses, and miss the rituals that accompanied going to see a film in the theatre. A documentary that celebrates those days and rituals is bound to resonate strongly with the people who experienced them. There’s nothing more tedious than someone else’s nostalgia, however, and those lacking that particular set of experiences may find The Projectionist overly reliant on the good will of its audiences, and impatient at its habit of stretching material that could have made an interesting short film into an occasionally tedious 81-minute feature. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Projectionist is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber beginning March 30, 2021. Extras on the disc include “Cinevangelist: A Life in Revival Film,” a short documentary by Matt Barry from 2018, and trailers for this and two other films.